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How Do You Know When To Press the Pedals On the Piano?

As a pianist, you need to know what the pedals do and how to use them properly. There are actually two things that affect the sound of the music, one is the pressure you use as your fingers strike the keys and the other relates to the use of the pedals. The pedals affect the character of sound coming from the strings (for example, louder, softer, sustained) as you strike and then release the piano keys when you play a piece of music. Using the pedals correctly will help you to more effectively express the elements of feeling, mood and tone as you play.

The pedals of an acoustic (or real) piano are:

Left: una corda or soft pedal

Middle: Sostenuto pedal

Right: Tre corda, Damper or Sustain pedal

Left Pedal: una corda which means one string. On a grand piano, the keys shift so that the hammer hits only one string instead of three making the sound softer-thus it's common name: the soft pedal. This pedal makes soft music softer and you can hold it down as long as you wish.

Middle Pedal: sostenuto allows you to sustain bass notes (lower end of the piano) while still using the damper pedal in the normal way. The only issue is that it is sometimes missing or if it’s there, it doesn’t work.

Now let’s go to the pedal has the greatest impact on your piano playing and is the most frequently used. It has three names.

Right: Pedal: Tre corda (three strings, because each note on the piano has three strings) or Damper (because it controls the dampers) or Sustain pedal (because it sustains the notes) This is why digital pianos need to have at least one pedal which is the sustain pedal.

Example of a sustain pedal for a digital piano.


How the Dampers Work

This is how the dampers work. When you press a key on the piano, the hammer hits the strings for that note and you hear a G, D or whatever the note is. As long as your finger keeps the key down, the note continues to sound, but when you lift your finger off the note, the sound stops. The damper stops (dampens) the note from sounding as soon as you lift your finger off the key. When you want the note to sound even after you lift your finger off the key, you hold the damper pedal down. It doesn’t make any difference whether you play one note or 10 notes, all the notes will sustain for as long as you hold the damper pedal down.

Here’s the issue: IF you hit one or more notes that don’t fit with the notes you want to play, you’ll hear clashing sounds, musical “chaos”.

To avoid the potential for clashing sounds, you need to be very precise about when you push down and lift up the pedal. To develop this skill, I recommend that you follow this simple rule:

Change the Pedal WHEN the Chords Change

Using chord symbols is the easiest way to master the skill of pressing the pedal down and releasing it at exactly the right time. The chords symbols are the letter names you see above the notes in this section of Amazing Grace. Chord symbols represent the major, minor, seventh or other types of chords in a song.

How to apply the principle of

Changing the Pedal When the Chords Change:

1. Play the chord.

2. As soon as you play the chord, push down the damper (Sustain Pedal).

3. While the pedal is down, move your hand over the next chord ready to play it.

4. At exactly at the time that you play the chord, LIFT up the damper (sustain) pedal

5. Push down the pedal to sustain this chord

6. Repeat the process for the entire song

I call this process the “see-saw effect” because the chord is pressed down WHEN you lift the pedal and when you press the pedal, you can lift up your hand from the chord. This reminds me of 2 children on a see-saw. Although the same rule applies to playing classical piano the chord changes are less obvious and take another level of musicianship to recognize. But when you are playing music with the chord changes written above the staff, you can see the letter names above some of the notes.

If you'd like to know more about how to identify chord changes in classical music as well as the written pedal markings, leave a comment below this post (way at the bottom) For now, watch my video designed to help you master your pedal changing technique.

In this video, Diana Mascari shows you how to develop and master the skill of being able to change the pedal at exactly the right time

Mastering the skill of changing the damper (sustain) pedal at exactly the right time, will certainly require practice. Start with left hand alone and work your way up to both hands. When you hear how much better your music sounds, you'll know that all of your and effort have been well worth it.

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Diana Mascari has taught piano to hundreds of adults and children for more than 40 years. She holds two Masters of Music degrees from New England Conservatory and taught keyboard harmony to music majors while pursuing doctoral studies at Boston University. Her work as music director for a multi-cultural Presbyterian Church has continued for four decades, and her jazz and classical compositions have been performed worldwide. Diana has been performing for more than 50 years. From solo jazz piano (her first love) to commercial groups touring the East Coast to leading her own jazz ensembles at many colleges and jazz clubs throughout New England. For questions or comments, please get in touch with me




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